One final check round the room.
Three o’clock on a Thursday was an odd time for a visit, but it was the only downtime between my part-time jobs that suited Jo. More unusual was the one-to-one rendezvous in my bedsit with someone about my age and attractive.
It had been a jokey idea at first. On Friday, a big group of us - mostly staff from the pub we both worked at - were queuing for a club after our shift. Jo’s bunch were up ahead. She was refused entry because of her ripped jeans (both knees, like wide smiles). Her pal, Beth, joked that I could sew them up, given the upholstering training of my youth. A few days later, during a slow shift, Jo and I ended up arranging the visit.
At 2.58 Jo texted to say she was nearby.
Of course, I had tidied up. The main task was to clear my junk off the armchair so there would be a choice of places to sit. The bed as the only option might be awkward. Jo mentioned a boyfriend once so I was surprised when she suggested coming to my place. I didn’t know what she was thinking, and I didn’t have the skills or inclination to ask her straight out.
She knew that I was single. In conversation I was very much an ‘I’ person rather than a ‘we’ person. Not out of choice. On the contrary, it was about time I found someone, or someone found me.
The door buzzer went. As she came up the last few steps, I noticed the offending jeans. I should have guessed she would wear them. I would have put them in a bag.
A quick hug and she came in.
‘Oh my God!’ almost a shout. ‘This is amazing. What is this place?’
I lived there. I was used to it. Sometimes I forgot.
‘Where did you get all this? It’s like … I don’t know. A Bedouin tent or a medieval castle - they have tapestries, don’t they? But it’s more William Morris.’ I just let her talk.
There was something like love in her face. I caught a touch of it as her eyes met mine on the way round the room. She was wide-eyed, mouth half-open, with the start of a smile.
‘I had no idea,’ she said.
‘You can keep looking while I mend your jeans.’ I said.
‘Can I look round first, and touch them?’
She went over to one by the fireplace and placed both hands on it.
‘I love this one. It feels so soft.’
The late-spring afternoon sunshine gave gallery-quality illumination to the detail. It was one of my favourites, too; a forest scene with something of A Midsummer Night’s Dream about it.
‘Where did you get them?’ Jo asked.
‘All over. I just find them.’
She pointed at a pale brown canvas, lower down, by the chair.
‘Why’s that only got one bird?’ she asked.
‘That’s mine. I mostly repair them – sometimes I have a go. I gave up on that one.’
‘Why? I like it. It’s funny.’ She knelt down and ran the palm of her hand over it. She would be getting the feel of the soft gentle bumps of the wings.
‘The canvas is too thick for the thread. It took me the robin to find out. It’s a reminder not to make that mistake again.’
‘We all make mistakes,’ she said.
I gave her a tour. She had points of reference from her college course - an arts foundation year with a few weeks of photography, then fashion, ceramics, and so on.
She found another one to get lost in.
I stood close by. She smelt of honey shampoo. Her hair under the dry outer layers was still wet. The sunlight showed up the flaws in her skin. She must have had an adolescence like mine. Her nose ring was golden-coloured, maybe real gold. Her eyes jumped about the tapestry. Her pupils were large, with a hazel ring around them – green and brown, overlaying a base of glowing amber.
She must have sensed me studying her. She locked onto my eyes in her innocent, open, carefree way. It was her most common expression.
I reciprocated with some verbal frankness.
‘I was just looking at the colours in your eyes.’ Hopefully, she would respond to that.
‘Would you like to embroider them?’ It seemed a serious question, then an ironic smile broke out.
‘It’s a funny way of saying it, but I would, actually.’ My voice was croaky. I thought of making tea. Too much directness for me.
‘Yeah?’ she went. ‘That could be interesting.’
Her eyes began to sparkle. She caught her own smile, biting her lower lip that released itself slowly then popped back out to a pout. She had no make-up on, but her full lips were cherry-red.
She laughed and threw her head back. Her brown hair swung round. The darker wet bits showed and must have felt cold on her throat.
‘Maybe we should get on with what I’m here for,’ she said. ‘Shall I take them off?’ she asked.
‘I can do it with you wearing them,’ I replied.
She sat in the armchair and I knelt in front of her. She leant forward so she was sitting up quite straight. She clasped her hands, almost in prayer, keenly watching me.
‘Maybe you should rub your hands - like a doctor - if they’re cold,’ she said, with a mischievous cheeky grin that made her look years younger for a moment.
I did feel like a doctor, inspecting a wound. I played along, although I already knew the prognosis. A patch would be best, but she didn’t want that. After some explaining, she compromised and agreed to let me sew a dark-blue corduroy patch to the inside. The jeans would have to come off after all.
She took them off sitting down, with a total lack of self-consciousness, and put her coat over her legs like a granny rug.
I sat on the bed and got on with it. I could see her looking round the room.
‘I knew you did upholstery, and I knew about your apprenticeship, but this is something else. You could display this.’
I smiled politely.
‘People would pay to see your collection,’ she said.
That was funny.
‘No, really,’ she said.
We were back to our pub-shift banter.
I focused. One of the tapestries caught her eye and she was up and wandering about, peering and stroking them. Her coat slipped as she walked around.
She came over and sat next to me. The mattress wasn’t great. It sunk and rocked us close together so that I nearly pricked myself. She didn’t notice. She leant against my elbow to watch.
‘It’s so funny to see you sewing.’
I didn’t know what to say to that. I finished off and secured it; turned the jeans back out and handed them over. She looked satisfied, if not happy. She dropped her coat on the bed and pulled her jeans on.
‘It feels warmer. No draughts.’ She was happy again. ‘Thanks. Look, I’d better go.’
At the doorway she threw a final glance around the room, smiling, eyes shining, her pupils dark and large, her mouth hanging half open again.
Her hazel eyes rested on me. ‘I had no idea about this part of you.’
I felt her hand on my shoulder. She leant in and kissed me on the mouth.
When she stayed there, for some reason I counted, one thousand, two thousand, three thousand …
‘I’m leaving my boyfriend this week. It’s been coming,’ she said.
‘Maybe I could come again next Tuesday?’
‘Yes, sure,’ I said.
She skipped down the stairs.
I closed and then leant on the door. Sun beams were falling about the dusty floor.
I always thought I was mad to collect the rugs and tapestries and wall-hangings. But it was the best thing about my life. You get so used to everything being shit, you treasure and cling on to the good stuff.
I wondered what Jo was really like.
In the following days we stole secret kisses at the pub. She didn’t wait until Thursday to visit.
After a month she went back to her old boyfriend, who I never met. She kept him hidden, like I did with my tapestries. I gave her the robin on her last visit. It might serve her as a reminder of past mistakes, as it had for me.
In the autumn I got together with Jo’s pal, Beth. I moved in before long. Beth had a proper job and a new-build flat with white walls covered with framed posters. I left my tapestries under a bed, in suitcases, at my parents’.
I never saw Jo again. But we heard that she had gone to Leeds to study textiles.
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